Gold-flecked Puyricard chocolatesIn the countryside just outside Aix en Provence, Puyricard, a luxury chocolate factory offers tours, courses and, of course, chocolates for sale. It also has an extraordinary story behind it.

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The patriarch of the house of Puyricard, Jan-Guy Roelandts, was a Belgian citizen and mining engineer who left his homeland in 1948 to settle in Léopoldville in what was then the Belgian Congo.

There he met his wife, Marie-Anne. But, after the Congo achieved independence in 1960, the country (renamed Zaire, then eventually the Democratic Republic of Congo) began to slip into chaos.

The couple decided to acquire a skill that they could take away with them when it was time to leave - and that skill was chocolate-making. It's an art for which their Belgian homeland is famous - but which was hardly widespread in the heart, heat and humidity of Africa.

The Roelandts bought equipment on a short trip to Brussels and learned how to use it by trial and error back in Léopoldville despite the difficult conditions. Gradually they built up a small business there, supplying chocolates to diplomats and expatriates; their clientele included the then-President Mobutu.

 

 

By 1967 the country was in turmoil and the Roelandts looked for somewhere new to live in Europe, a French-speaking place with a sunny climate. They decided on Aix, bought a house in the village of Puyricard and began making chocolate there in the kitchen.

Tanguy Roelandts of PuyricardChocolate, as the Roelandts' son, Tanguy (pictured), recalls today, is not really a gastronomic tradition in Provence either, where the local palate prefers candied fruit and other sweetmeats.

But his father (who once ran an advertising agency) embarked on an intensive marketing drive to persuade local stores to stock their products, and eventually the couple opened their own first shop in Puyricard.

Today the Puyricard business has expanded exponentially, with a network of shops in South East France, plus one in Toulouse and two in Paris, selling some 100 different types of chocolates.

About 70 per cent of them are moulded chocolates with fillings of ganache, praline, caramel or liqueur. Selected celebrity chocs are decorated with speckles of 22 carat gold (pictured top left). In a nod to provençal culture, Puyricard also produces the classic Aix speciality, calissons.

Puyricard has tours of the factory (pictured) and chocolate-making classes; all must be booked in advance.

The Puyricard Chocolate FactoryThe tour lasts two hours and starts with a short introductory film, after which you're shown - with the help of some free samples - the process by which the calissons and chocolate are made there by hand.

It's open to children over the age of ten, and the factory is accessible to visitors of restricted mobility.

There are various levels of chocolate-making lessons, some of them open to children. Check the Puyricard website for details of the current ones.

These are held all year round, except November and December. Then the factory is working at top speed to meet the Christmas rush, when it scores 42 per cent of its total annual sales, with another mini-peak around Easter, according to Tanguy, who now runs the family business.

Click here to read about tours of the Léonard Parli calisson factory, also just outside Aix.

Where: La Chocolaterie, 420 route du Puy Sainte Réparade, 13090 Aix-en-Provence. Tel : (+33) 4 42 28 18 18. Fax (+33) 4 42 28 18 19. The factory lies roughly 10km (6 miles) north of Aix.

If you can't make it to the factory but want to buy chocolates anyway, there is a Puyricard shop in Aix itself at 7-9, rue Rifle-Rafle, 13100 Aix-en-Provence. The three Puyricard shops in Marseille: 388 avenue du Prado, 13008 Marseille; 30 boulevard Clémenceau, 13004 Marseille; 25 rue Francis Davso, 13001 Marseille.

Ordering chocolate by mail is tricky, given the fact that the Puyricard products are made with fresh ingredients and have an estimated shelf-life of three weeks. However, American readers might be interested in Puyricard Signature, a club which claims to be able to speed newly-made chocs to its members.

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